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Untouched by Human Hands

January 25, 2011

Long before it was known for its coffee, Chock Full O' Nuts was a restaurant chain; actually, an economy lunch counter, or what passed for fast food prior to the 1970s. One selling point of Chock Full O' Nuts was hygiene. The servers wore plastic gloves and used tongs to handle the food. The restaurant chain's advertising slogan was, "untouched by human hands."[1-2] Things were great, since no one at the time had any fear of the possibility that there was lead in the stainless steel tongs; and nearly all of the food must have been made from insecticide-free and fungicide-free organic ingredients, since most of these nasty chemicals hadn't been invented yet. "Untouched by Human Hands" is also the title of a collection of science fiction short stories by Robert Sheckley.

I spent many years as an industrial scientist. On the days when our paychecks were posted to our bank accounts, I often remarked to my coworkers that I was generally surprised that our company had enough money to pay us. Every day we would experience frustrating inefficiencies in what we did, and scientists don't like inefficiency. Experimentalists, especially, are dyed-in-the-wool optimizers. The reason that our company was still able to make its payroll was simple - All large corporations behave inefficiently. We just needed to make sure that we weren't much more inefficient than the next guy.

Of course, the greatest inefficiency was our spending time writing progress reports that no one read. In the era when things were still typed or printed onto paper, we suspected that none of our reports were actually held in a director's hands. Eventually, we entered these reports directly into a computer database, and this ensured that none were even read accidentally. In this way, the "untouched by human hands" paradigm extended itself to information. The new slogan in this case would be, "not sensed by human eyes, but duly recorded." The requirement for writing such reports harks back to the time when employees needed to be kept busy. The management objective was to ensure that there were more tasks assigned than possibly could be done. The management imperative was to make certain that employees were doing company matters on the clock, and nothing else.

Food tongs with platter

(Photograph by author)

In today's knowledge-based economy, a good employee is the one who's thinking, not the one who's busy on mindless tasks. Managing knowledge workers, such as scientists, is difficult, since thinking is an invisible activity. More importantly, you can't coerce a scientist to think. He must be willing, and that only happens if he or she has a nice working environment (e.g., free coffee), just compensation; and a little more job security than what's presently offered to most corporate employees.

The transition from the General Motors idea of a corporation to the Google idea of a corporation was reviewed in an article in the Wall Street Journal.[3] The article was a summary of the book, "The Wall Street Journal Essential Guide to Management," by Alan Murray.[4] Murray was the deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal when the book was published. No, I haven't read the book, but that was by design. There was a corporate slogan popular in the 1980s; namely, "Work smarter, not harder." My current take on this is, "Don't read more books, just read book reviews." After all, the topic of this article is efficiency.

The book and its summary recall the reason why corporations were successful through most of the twentieth century. This was the reduction in "transaction cost." It was far easier to build an automobile by harnessing the powers of your own workforce, over whom you had exquisite control, than farming-out bits and pieces of its construction to others. While reading that, you were reminded that the pendulum has swung quite a bit in the opposite direction. Nowadays, anything that can be outsourced will be; and the control is exerted through contracts that demand "just-in-time" delivery and huge penalties for non-compliance. There's the further efficiency, if it can be called that, of squeezing your suppliers on price. The argument, of course, is that if they did things "the right way," their parts wouldn't be as expensive as they are. If Six Sigma is used as a tool, it's the hammer to the head.

One example of change in the technology product landscape that's cited in the book is the idea that television reached 50 million people after thirteen years, but the Internet had the same penetration after just four years, and Facebook after two. I have a problem with the specific dates for the beginning of television and the Internet, but I don't argue against the overall validity of this trend. The foremost effect that destabilizes corporations today is "disruptive technology," the one rogue invention that decimates your entire product line. Examples given in the book are mainframe/personal computers, landline/mobile telephones, film/digital photography and floor/online transactions for anything from stock trades to airline tickets. There are also things so utterly foreign to corporate culture that they can't be understood. One of these is the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) movement. This article is being written on a Linux desktop (Ubuntu), the result of the volunteer efforts of many programmers and the support of quite a few software companies who want a stable platform on which their applications will run.

We can't just dump economics and the marketplace and board the next train to Utopia. The one saving grace of the marketplace is that it does allocate resources into the highest valued endeavors. So, corporations will be around for quite a while. In what ways should corporations change? I mentioned free coffee and job security, but corporations need to inspire workers, not just keep them happy. Google allows its employees to devote 20% of their time to unfunded research, and such research has been developed into important products. However, make certain that the best of those inspired employees are justly compensated. You need to give them reasons to work for you and not leave to start their own Google.


  1. Bill Bence, "Chock Full O' Nuts," A Week in New York April 1946 Blog, May 13, 2010.
  2. William Harry Harding, "Funneled Vision-The World According to Advertising Slogans." Los Angeles Times, March 30, 1986.
  3. Alan Murray, "The End of Management," Adapted from "The Wall Street Journal Essential Guide to Management" (see Ref. 4), August 21, 2010.
  4. Alan Murray, "The Wall Street Journal Essential Guide to Management: Lasting Lessons from the Best Leadership Minds of Our Time," (Harper Paperbacks, August 10, 2010), 240 pages (via Amazon).

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